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The record-setting crowd shouted out its love of Cal Ripken Jr. at yesterday's Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. But it was when Ripken was expressing love for his family that the usually stoic Orioles great lost his composure.
Speaking of his son and daughter, Ripken became visibly moved, wiped tears from his eye and momentarily stopped his speech. Moments later, he again had to compose himself after mentioning his wife.
From among the estimated 75,000 spilling out beyond the Clark Sports Center field and onto weed-covered hills nearly 300 yards from the podium came cries of "We love you, Cal!"
For Ripken and fellow inductee Tony Gwynn, it was a day to express love -- for family, friends, mentors and the game of baseball -- and to feel it from a legion of fans.
While the affable Gwynn, an eight-time batting champ from the San Diego Padres, was well-supported by Padres fans who made the 3,000-mile trek to upstate New York, the majority of those in attendance were wearing Orioles orange and black and cheering for Ripken, Aberdeen's favorite son.
Several former teammates, including Ken Singleton, Brady Anderson and B.J. Surhoff, were there, as were Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos and actors John Travolta and Richard Gere. On the dais, 53 other baseball legends joined Ripken and Gwynn to form the largest collection of Hall of Famers together at one event.
Early on in a 15-minute, 53-second speech, Ripken thanked baseball fans across the country -- and especially in Baltimore -- for supporting him during a 21-season career that included one World Series championship, 19 All-Star appearances and an incomparable streak of 2,632 consecutive games.
"You cheered my successes and stood by me when things weren't going so well," Ripken, 46, told the fans. "Where would any of us in this game be without the people who love the game and their team and would make trips to events like this long after we have put down our gloves and bats?"
Regardless of their on-field accomplishments, Ripken and Gwynn were often heralded for the intensity with which they approached the game, the friendliness they showed toward fans and the loyalty that led them to stay with one team for their entire careers.
The two-hour ceremony -- which included a tribute to Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr and presentations of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award to St. Louis Post-Dispatch baseball writer Rick Hummel and the Ford C. Frick Award to Kansas City Royals radio announcer Denny Matthews -- seemingly celebrated what Ripken and Gwynn meant to baseball and to the cities in which they played.
For Orioles fans who have watched their club post nine straight losing seasons, it was a trip back to the team's glory days with a player who embodied the Oriole Way.
"I feel the team hasn't been the same since Ripken left," said Lucinda Stendera of Catonsville, who watched the proceedings from a hill about three football fields from the stage. "He was the heart and soul of the Orioles, and since he has been gone, it isn't the same."
For his part, Ripken kept his comments relatively brief -- compared with Gwynn, whose speech lasted nearly 28 minutes -- and his message simple.
Baseball and sports are important, Ripken said, but nothing is more essential than how you interact with people, especially children.
"We are the ambassadors for the future," Ripken said, "just as the baseball player wants to leave his mark on the game and leave it a little better than he found it. We should all try to make this world a better place for the next generation."
He stressed that athletes should be role models and that he has used baseball as a platform to reach kids. "My opportunity to work with children and their coaches across this great country, and for that matter the world, enables me to tell you firsthand that the game of baseball is alive and well," he said.
Through much of his speech, Ripken kept his composure. But talking about his children, Rachel, 17, and Ryan, 14, tripped him up. And it happened again when he mentioned Kelly, his wife of nearly 20 years.
The crowd, which far exceeded the previous Cooperstown record of 50,000, set in 1999, fed off Ripken's show of emotion. Each time he stopped, the crowd roared its support with cheers and applause.
He also performed a faux magic trick while on the podium, placing a white rose into his sport coat as a moment later son Ryan took out a similar flower and passed it to his mother in the front row.
Ripken centered on the family theme, mentioning the support he received from his sister and two brothers, including Bill, who played alongside him for seven seasons with the Orioles.
He also praised his late father, Cal Sr., a former Orioles coach and manager who was his mentor in baseball and life, and his mother, Vi, who was the family's rock.
Ripken talked little about his own career and named just a few outside his family in his list of thank-yous. Instead, he made a sweeping comment about all those who helped him over the years. "You don't get to a place like this and join a group like the men seated behind me without a lot of people pushing you along the way," Ripken said. "If I thank them all individually, I'd keep you here longer than The Streak."
Gwynn, on the other hand, talked almost exclusively about his career and those who mentored him from youth baseball to the major leagues. And although he had predicted Saturday that he would be emotional, Gwynn never lost his composure.
"In many ways, I was jealous of the fact that Tony got up there and knew what he wanted to say and kept his emotions under control," Ripken said. "He told me he wanted it to be a conversation with everyone else. And so I was jealous of the fact he rolled through it and appeared to be under control."
Gwynn laughed at Ripken's analysis, saying he was "so wrong" and that he had been "scared to death" while speaking. He said he came a bit unglued when he found out minutes before the ceremony that, because of a potential rainstorm, Gwynn and Ripken would be moved from third and fourth in the order of speeches to first and second.
Gwynn was forced to lead off, but the rain never came. Instead, fans battled scorching heat, and ushers distributed free bottles of water.
Ultimately, the weather and everything else, including controversies swirling around the sporting world these days, seemingly were forgotten for a day.
The focus was on two respected and well-liked men who reached the pinnacle of their baseball careers yesterday in front of a record number of adoring fans.